Our Brand Is Uselessness part 3

Posted: June 12, 2017 by Admin in Alienation, At the coalface, capitalist crisis, Class Matters, Economics, Unemployment, United States - economy, Workers' rights, World economy

A six-part series by Laurence Peterson documenting an example of downward mobility in Post-Meltdown America

Part 3: The CDS Way Continued

More fun and games…

      Once in whatever spot chosen the advisor is pretty much chained within an invisible circle measuring exactly 12 feet in radius for the rest of the shift, and is not allowed to leave the cart itself at all without someone else taking command of the cart unless the advisor maintains constant eye contact with the cart for the duration of the walk. Alternately, one may leave without regard to the former rather annoying restriction (which, in turn, made it extremely difficult to observe the injunction to keep the floor around the demo clean at all times), but only if all prepared samples and raw foodstuffs are cleared off the top of the card and stowed on racks below, and after the cart is turned round to obscure the opening on to the side with the racks. Technically advisors are allowed to close the exhibit off in this manner to visit the loo or to go back to fetch supplies, but Marc’s sometimes savage reaction to such sorties ensured that many advisors were too afraid to undertake them even when in need, and several advisors would chose to wait for their allotted breaks to take care of such things, rather than dealing with them as the situation arose. I actually became quite popular because I began asking other advisors if they needed anything when I had to make an extra journey back for supplies, and I always tried to tread lightly when I got back there to avoid contact with Marc.

When in place, the top of the cart must be set up. If the demo required an oven or microwave, this reduced the space for manoeuvre considerably, by about half at least. And then, if items required a cooling period before consumption, the items had to be stowed in a container underneath, and the handling of hot containers and foodstuffs with so little room to place items made the undertaking a mildly perilous one, for advisors and consumers alike. We were allowed to make use of small metal barriers and equipped with “hot/caliente”—hot in Spanish—signs, but Marc really went ballistic if he found out that an advisor attempted to enforce the integrity of the barrier in any way; and consumers simply placed hands, whole arms and limbs over the barrier no matter how hot the items were, or even if an advisor was wielding a large knife within the very small space separating the consumer from the advisor without comment almost all of the time. If a customer touched an item on a tray that was not fully prepared and put out for consumption (or placed behind the barriers), Costco Avon’s management demanded that the entire tray’s contents be discarded. This happened very regularly when it was busy, and I hardly need to elaborate on how extremely annoying it is not only to throw away an entire tray of items when customers are clamouring for them; but, given the fact that rubbish bins tended to be in short supply, the trip to the bin often involved going through the tedious routine of shutting down the cart. Of all the policies that made our lives unnecessarily difficult, I would bet that this is the one that most CDS advisors hated most. And, ironically, the policy often enough enraged the very consumers themselves, as many of them, watching the advisor shut down the cart or simply dispose of the items on the tray, put two and two together and realised that the whole pantomime was occasioned by them. One of my patrons actually threw a half eaten treat right back at me when I had to employ this silly, completely avoidable little nuclear option.

Another factor that made the space even more cramped was the necessity of keeping normally refrigerated items on ice in big plastic bins (Daymon resist investing in modern carts with refrigerated sections aggressively) in which the ice rapidly turned into a pool of mush or water, which sometimes leaked all over the floor. These things were kept under the surface, of course, and that meant you had all the less room to store supplies and so on, and advisors were not allowed to store personal items on the cart, even though CDS and Costco provided no secure place for advisors to leave personal belongings and valuables. For women, injury was added to insult here inasmuch as CDS personnel could only use clear purses to get into and out of Costco in the first place, advisors seeming to be prime suspects where theft was concerned. The prohibition of purses was not enforced strictly, of course (how could it be?), and female advisors got round it by pushing supply boxes in front of purses and so on, but it was yet another instance in which life was made unnecessarily difficult for them to the benefit of no one, a sentiment that might well serve as CDS’s corporate motto.

Once the set up–with all its accompanying hassles—was over, the thing that really made the job rather unbearable usually set in: a unique, life-hating kind of boredom that often led me to dread going to work on days off and rendered me incapable of doing much of anything for long periods after finishing a shift. I have worked in all manner of boring jobs in my life, but have never experienced the type of boredom I underwent as a CDS sales advisor in all that time. It was a good thing that our shifts only lasted six hours under normal circumstances; and I simply cannot even bear the thought of working a 5 day-a-week, 8 hour day as a CDS advisor.

The job was especially boring mostly due to the fact that it was one of those increasingly common occupations that require one to respond to anyone passing by who expressed even a mild desire to interact with one’s full attention, if not fawning obsequiousness. Theoretically, CDS advisors are supposed to make the following information verbally available to everyone passing the cart: product name, the manufacturer, current price, location of the item in the store, and, last, but kind of humiliatingly, we were to add some sort of enjoinder to “TAKE ONE HOME!”; and advisors were also encouraged to add bits of information, which, in many cases (due to time constraints mostly—it wasn’t like we were given any time to do product research), could only be extracted from the DPI, or simply made up by the advisor out of whole cloth, to round out the sales pitch. If the product had a long or unusual name, or if the demo involved exhibition of several products, as it often did, this tended to turn the recital into a rather long-winded affair. But, even in simple cases, I, for one, could only trot this stuff out for maybe an hour or two before being reduced to a sullen, stupefied silence. CDS maintained that sales were dependent on advisors’ carrying out this routine almost exclusively, and if sales targets did not meet a standard set by CDS, the advisor would find shifts taken away and given to those who “sold.”

Regardless of the willingness of advisors to “sell,” though—and many not only spent far more time than I was able to barking out the spiel—many customers would pass by and say something: in a treasured minority of cases, they confined themselves to a polite greeting before moving on, but many others would say something rather inane. For marketing purposes, many consumer items come with names involving simple—and too often, rather silly–plays-on-words, and a lot of these people would make some unimaginative comment reflecting that; or, as I mentioned before, they would sometimes comment on the place in the store the advisor was dispatched to; or something about the weather; or the Red Sox or Patriots (major New England sport franchises); and so on.

Those who actually cared about the product to any degree tended to simply take the sample and move on, most with an acknowledgement of gratitude, but many with none at all. In fact, a strangely popular minority actually looked for opportunities to take samples while the advisor was somehow occupied, avoiding any contact with the advisor at all as much as possible. In a distinct minority of cases the product was discussed, and this would sometimes lead to a “sale,” with the customer taking a container of the product away; but advisors became inured to finding what was probably the same items stowed away on nearby shelves where they didn’t belong: in these cases the customers really weren’t interested in making a purchase at all, and went through this rigmarole to assuage some weird guilt about taking a free sample; they were just looking to shoot the breeze for a while, never intending to purchase anything.

But most of those who expressed interest confined their statements and questions to those of the most uninteresting and repetitive variety, to which it was usually impossible to respond without taking refuge in a pat, and sometimes false, answer: Is it spicey? Does it taste good? Will it make me fat (all too often asked by obese or semi-obese persons, or diabetics fresh from the chemist’s)? Many enquired according to the prevalence of various fads: Is it organic, or gluten-free—they never say “without gluten,” or something like that–whilst completely neglecting the horrible conditions under which much of the fare was produced. And you could do little more than to offer a nod while looking down if depressed, or a fake laugh when in a better mood, until the customer had taken the sample and moved on, only to repeat the tiresome procedure a few seconds later.

Under such conditions, it is almost impossible to think constructively about anything else, or to daydream, or, alternately, to converse intelligently with anyone who might want to pick a subject any more challenging than whether or not popcorn tastes good, especially if the advisor is wielding a tray or two of very hot items on a small cart crammed full of kit. I remember envying the Costco stock workers because, tedious as their jobs were, at least they could set about their relatively discrete tasks and lose themselves in those tasks, or be able to think about something else, or both; for us, a shift was spent in constant expectation of interruption of a stupefied pause by a host of constantly repeated inanities; and this is the thing that really contributed to a feel-it-in-your bones type of boredom.

In addition, however, the Avon Costco was (I was told by several Costco personnel) one of the worst performing stores in the country, if not the worst, and foot traffic on most days was low, and in fact seemed to get much worse from the time I started at Costco until the time I departed. So even the intervals separating the tedious encounters could be stretched to fantastic lengths during the majority of shifts, making the effort to rouse one’s self sufficiently to engage when somebody, inevitably, did show up even more challenging. And you always had to be ready for a manager—CDS or Costco–to come by, or up from behind, for failure to maintain proper posture in the right place would always create cause for critical comment, whilst any attempt to escape altogether by doodling, reading or anything like that was dealt with via termination or a write up. CDS also sent secret shoppers in to monitor us, and a monthly report was drawn up detailing who was naughty and who was nice.

If you were close enough to one or more of your comrades, a certain—rather small–amount of chit-chat was tolerated, but in most cases you were simply too far away from other sales advisors to while the time away talking, and Costco management would berate their people for talking with us too much, and tell on us to our management if they thought we were talking too much either to Costco staff or even amongst ourselves. This meant, in turn, that it took a very, very long time to get to know the other advisors. Jobs like this make it virtually impossible for workers to establish any sense of common purpose on the job, and in my two plus years at CDS Avon there was only one social event that might allow for any forging of relationships off the job, and that was organised independently of the company. At Christmas, we received sandwich platters to pick at during breaks, but, far from encouraging congeniality, these gestures tended to create resentment on the part of those assigned later breaks, who found the pickings rather meagre by the time they received an opportunity to get their hands on anything. Even occasions like funerals or serious illnesses were not publicized, so one often found out about such things long afterwards, when the opportunity to make a meaningful gesture had long since disappeared.

Now it could get quite busy at the Avon Costco, especially right before important holidays or periods of transition in the year (beginning of school, for example); and on these occasions the boredom issue was reduced to the factor of constant and rapid repetition to meet the ever-present demand for free samples, often for hours on end. If you had a demo that required a lot of sauce or something it could get very messy, too, and there was no way to escape to clean up until break time or the end of shift. And, even if you were going full tilt, you were still admonished to recite the sacred five sales pointers with some degree of enthusiasm as you were flailing about trying to keep the sample treadmill turning. With some items, pizza, for instance, it was simply impossible to keep up with the demand, given the tiny ovens and lack of space to work in, not to mention lack of access to or opportunity to employ cleaning materials; and at this point an annoying but omnipresent small minority of usually uncommunicative shoppers could make things really difficult with complaints (You never have any samples out when I come by!), or when they started poking their hands behind the metal barriers in search of some sort of presumably hoarded morsel. Oh—and then there were those who complained about the quality of preparation of the free samples….

But, as I said, most of the time these concerns were moot, and most of the shoppers were polite, if not very imaginative in conversation (and why should they be whilst shopping?). And the children were awesome, as well as being some of the very few who showed any real appreciation to us for providing the service at all. There were a few noteworthy regulars, of whom I shall mention three: George, The Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance and John The Amazon Guy.

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